Play it again, Chan

Put another dime in this “Jukebox.”

by Kara Nesvig

A dive bar regular, slumped over the dull countertop on a rickety stool and nursing a strong glass of something intoxicating, might describe indie darling Cat Power like this: “She’s got a voice that goes down easy – like a shot of bourbon.” And with that quick summarization, they’d be exactly right.

Chan Marshall, the dusky brunette beauty with the heavy-hearted alter ego she calls Cat Power, possesses a voice reminiscent of a worn-out truck stop chanteuse who’s drank a few too many whiskey cocktails in her day and lived a thousand hard lifetimes. Her husky, bluesy alto evokes the memory of a lover’s perfume wafting across a smoke-filled room, the clink of ice cubes in a glass of sloe gin. “Jukebox,” her newest offering, is akin to slipping your quarter in an ancient honky-tonk’s dusty Wurlitzer and discovering a treasure trove of forgotten gems from an era long past.

With 2000’s “The Covers Record,” her previous foray into the world of other people’s songs, Cat Power tried her hand at taking on The Velvet Underground, Nina Simone and The Rolling Stones. This time around, she draws her material from such musical giants as folk singing soprano Joni Mitchell (“Blue”), country music forefather Hank Williams (“Ramblin (Wo)man”), Minnesota’s own golden boy Bob Dylan (“I Believe in You”) and gone-too-soon powerhouse Janis Joplin (“A Woman Left Lonely”). She even dares to cover herself, giving her previous work, the spaced-out 1998 track “Metal Heart,” a more structured rethinking while keeping its previous atmospheric aura intact.

Each and every song resonates with her aching-heart, moody-piano trademark, shook up by a backing band full of Patsy Cline-worthy guitars; it’s a little bit country and a little bit rock n’ roll. So many of the songs are so completely lifted from their previous incarnations that “Jukebox” could, to the untrained ear, pass as an album of originals.

Take for instance one of the album’s standout tracks, “New York.” This Kander & Ebb classic has been performed by countless high school bands, poorly warbled by karaoke-devotees the world over, claimed by the Chairman of the Board himself, Frank Sinatra, and become the signature song of showboat Liza-with-a-Z. The tune practically emanates glitter. However, in Cat Power’s able hands, the result is a stripped-down, slightly sleazy retread of a cabaret classic. With the perspective shifted, it becomes solely about the longing to escape, to roam untraveled roads, than the glitz and glamour of the Big Apple.

The album does contain one original track, “Song to Bobby,” an homage to her personal hero Bob Dylan. Sure, it’s a little creepy (at one point she sings “Backstage pass in my hand/ givin’ you my heart was my plan”), but mostly it plays as an innocent young girl’s admiring love letter to an elusive, legendary rock n’ roll figurehead.

What makes “Jukebox” at once endearing and infuriating is the obscurity of a good many of her covers; it’s similar to dipping into the iTunes library of your most music-obsessed, hipper-than-thou friend and perusing their collection that varies from heavyweights to artists lesser-known, discovering some fabulous musical treats along the way.

So pour yourself a stiff drink, dim the lights, and give “Jukebox” a listen; in Power’s able hands, the dust and glitter are brushed away from these golden oldies, leaving you a cocktail of tunes that goes down easy.